by Farah Samti and Jaber Belkhiria
26 January 2012
From: Tunisia

The socio-political upheaval Tunisia has undergone since the revolution has led many Tunisians to question their place within this new society – Tunisia’s often undiscussed homosexual community is no exception to this uncertainty.

While the fall of Ben Ali has afforded a greater space to free expression, not all Tunisian homosexuals are convinced things are headed in the right direction.

Stoufa, a 54 year-old homosexual hairdresser and designer, said that there was a time in Tunisia when people had enough exposure to homosexuality that they were not taken aback by it. However, he says that attitudes towards homosexuality have changed considerably over the years.

“People these days speak more openly about homosexuality, and claim to be tolerant. However, in reality they are not,” he stated.

According to Stoufa, who was raised in downtown Tunis, his community was small and everyone knew each other.

“In such a small community, sexual orientation was not a secret. However, there was no shame associated with it. People just respected it then – more than they do now,” said Stoufa.

Nevertheless, there have been recent signs that a public dialogue is beginning that was not possible before.

Tunisia’s Gay Day Magazine, launched in March 2011, is the first online Tunisian magazine for the LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender) community in the Middle East and North Africa. A blog, Facebook page and Twitter account have been established for the magazine in an effort to interact with Tunisian homosexuals across a number of mediums.

Fedi, a 23 year old unemployed college graduate, is the online administrator of Gay Day Magazine’s website.

“We aim at advocating for human rights, and against stereotypes. We wish to serve as a space that facilitates communication among the Tunisian LGBT community and provides a healthy and interactive environment to confront issues that face our community,” stated Fedi.

Social networks and online support groups represent a refuge for the LGBT community – particularly to teenagers questioning their sexuality.

“Issues such as homophobia, the impossibility of being openly gay, and the taboo of addressing these problems has made the internet the first conduit for gay Tunisians to express themselves,” said Fedi.

Fedi, however, does not harbor any illusions about the fact that many problems remain for Tunisian homosexuals. Many of those problems are social; homosexuality is often unjustifiably associated with pedophilia, sex addiction, or sin. But discrimination against gays doesn’t stop with social biases – it is inscribed into the law as well.

Abd Essatar Zaafrani, a lawyer, stated that there is not a direct article in the constitution specifically prohibiting homosexuality. However, there are articles in the penal code related to general ethics that are against it. Article 230 criminalizes same-sex acts for both men and women with imprisonment for up to three years. However, these legal stipulations have never been applied.

“Perceptions regarding human rights depend on the culture and traditions of each society. There have always been reservations concerning this issue in Muslim and Arab countries. [The protection of ] minority rights has always been a question of the balance between law and social values. It is a continuous debate,” he added.

In post-revolutionary Tunisia, young Tunisian homosexuals have mixed views about how the social changes accompanying the fall of the Ben Ali regime may change their situation in the future.

Both Aymen, a 30 year old web designer, and Sabri, a  23 year-old student, are not openly gay. However, they stated that they have always been the target of stereotypes, judgment, and mistreatment.

Sabri and Aymen believe that the homosexual community is not being given adequate recognition.

“Gay rights should be a concern of the government. In a society that expresses discrimination and hate toward us, instead of respect we need legal protection,” declared Aymen.

The two men expressed worries about the future of the LGBT community in Tunisia.

Sarah, a 21 year old student, has also chosen to remain discrete about her homosexuality. She expressed her determination to leave the country and settle abroad, where pressure on homosexuals might be less intense.

“There are way too many problems that Tunisian homosexuals face, including a generational gap in understanding between parents and their children, and even social hypocrisy among homosexuals themselves,” Sarah stated.

In spite of her feelings about the intolerant aspects of Tunisian society, she does not think that now is the time to push for change in the country, saying that she believes that Tunisia has social priorities that should take precedence over gay rights.

Fedi as well, despite his strong conviction about the need for legally guaranteed rights for the homosexual community, thinks that it is still too soon to officially demand them from the government.

“Such a move would only destabilize the situation in which we are living, and cause more violence and more insecurity.”

Written in collaboration with Jaber Belkhiria